Sunday, September 23, 2018

King of Thieves


Brits love crims almost as much as they love the Royal Family. The cultural imprimaturs of British cinema are crime movies, from ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ to ‘Get Carter’ to Guy Ritchie and his uniquely UK spin on the slick American mainstream, just as the idols of many a Daily Mail reader or Spanish-settler ex-pat are the Great Train Robbers, the Krays and the Brinks Mat crew. The revelation, then, that the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit robbery had been the work of a group of old geezers captured the public imagination to the tune of two movies – this one and Ronnie Thompson’s ‘The Hatton Garden Job’ – and a TV mini-series in the three years since the heist took place.

There’s a wealth of reading online and at least two non-fiction books on the subject for anyone who wants background on the actual event and some idea of how accurate – or otherwise – ‘King of Thieves’ is. For purposes of this review, the basics are: during the Easter bank holiday in 2015, while the safety deposit premises were closed for four days and nearby businesses that would otherwise have been open were evacuated due to a London Underground fire (unconnected to the robbery and not even mentioned in the film), a group of OAP crims gained access to the building via a keyholder known only as ‘Basil’, disabled the alarm system, drilled through several feet of concrete, entered the vault and robbed the shit of it. All were old-school villains, all had form, and though the heist itself was planned and pulled off brilliantly, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up – with the exception (at the time, anyway) of Basil* – and charged.

‘King of Thieves’ tackles the story in classic three-act structure: the planning, the job itself and the thieves-fall-out aftermath/police investigation. Giving the project to Marsh should have been a shoe-in to direct: his two best films – ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ and ‘Man on Wire’ – are documentary features and ‘King of Thieves’ rounds out a trilogy of best-on-a-true-story features, following ‘The Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Mercy’, biopics of Stephen Hawking and Donald Crowhurst respectively. Loading it with Brit screen legends Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent should have sealed the deal. (Having said all that, ‘The Theory of Everything’ was bland, middlebrow Oscar-bait while ‘The Mercy’ egregiously dropped the ball on what could have been a fucking great movie.)

The film comes freighted, however, with three immediate problems – the first of which is Caine. Not only does he drift through the running time looking bored and delivering his lines with flat indifference, but his infinitely more engaged turn in the thematically similar ‘Going in Style’ – released only 18 months ago – provokes memories of how much fun this kind of material can be if handled well. Watching ‘King of Thieves’ while thinking about ‘Going in Style’, and God knows ‘Going in Style’ was no classic to begin with, just points up how lifeless Marsh’s film is.

That ‘Going in Style’ works is because Zach Braff knows exactly the balance of comedy and whimsy required to elevate the production beyond mere boilerplate. Which brings us to problem the second: ‘King of Thieves’ struggles to find a tone. The opening scenes have old-school thief Brian Reader (Caine) enjoying his seemingly legit twilight years with his adoring wife Lyn (a sparkling Francesca Annis) only for her declining health to leave him a widower. At the wake, some old faces from the past reminisce about the jobs they did, much to Brian’s chagrin. But when Basil (Charlie Cox) turns up at Brian’s morbidly silent house, drags him out for a pint, and pitches Hatton Garden to him it’s not long before he’s put an OAP team together and they’re planning the job in earnest. We’re about quarter of an hour in at this point and Marsh has gone from a jazzy opening credits sequence which promises a proper good old caper movie to a melancholy discourse on bereavement to ‘The Bank Job’ meets ‘Dad’s Army’. Further tonal disharmony awaits: the film’s attempts at comedy are skin-crawlingly embarrassing (someone should have told scripter Joe Penhall that there’s nothing inherently funny about crims in their 70s making homophobic comments and complaining about their bowels); the comedy abruptly dies when Terry Perkins (Broadbent) takes over the job after Brian backs out and discovers that with assumed power comes great paranoia (Broadbent’s authentically terrifying performance of an unpredictable man of violence going even further off the rails is easily the best thing the film has to offer); and the subsequent police investigation shifts the tone to documentary-style procedural. Indeed, this sees ‘King of Thieves’ at its most cohesive, Marsh finally engaging with the material and achieving a pace and style of filmmaking that works. It is, unfortunately, a case of too little too late.

Problem the third: visually, it’s fucking boring. Much of it is filmed in medium-close up, compositions are awkward and ugly (look out for an incredibly shoddy sequence where Basil can’t make eye contact with Brian while he sounds him out about the job), and there are precious few directorial grace notes to enliven the narrative. On paper, ‘King of Thieves’ should have been a cinematographer’s dream: dingy backstreet pubs, smelting plants, scrapyards, lift shafts, vaults, London by night. What’s on the screen, however, is flat and uninspired.

Performances are variable: Broadbent, as noted, delivers a powerhouse turn that you’d never have imagined of him, while Caine doesn’t seem interested. Winstone does the same old shtick, Gambon chews the scenery like a starving man given an unlimited budget in a steakhouse, Cox tries for enigmatic and misses by a mile and a half, Courtney bumbles about like it’s a mummers’ play, and Paul Whitehouse is wasted in a role that he really commits to but is terminally underwritten.

I’m not sure whether it’s Penhall’s script or Marsh’s direction that ultimately scuppers ‘King of Thieves’, or whether it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. Certainly, the film is riddled with moments that seem to strive towards meaning but are never really expanded on, mostly notably in the police’s initial belief that foreign criminals were behind the robbery. This is immediately echoed by a heavy-handed to-camera piece by a reporter speculating on the involvement of a foreign mob because the professional execution, cheer chutzpah and jaw-dropping haul (anywhere between £14 million and £200 million) is thought to be beyond the capabilities of any British outfit.

The Hatton Garden job took place a year before the Brexit referendum; ‘King of Thieves’ is in cinemas six months ahead of the prospective 29 March 2019 date for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It’s obvious that Penhall and Marsh have a point to make, but it’s vague, ill-defined, swamped by tedious scenes of crims with rent-a-Cockney accents saying “faak” and “cahnt” a lot and making shit gay-bashing jokes like they’re in some horrible 70s sitcom.

Towards the end, Marsh cuts between his aged protagonists facing the weight of the law and their younger selves – i.e. matching up each actor with a brief shot of them in a tough guy role from earlier in their filmography – presumably in an attempt at a Peckinpah-lite commentary on men outliving their times but, once again, not quite getting it right. Caine’s archive footage is, of course, from ‘The Italian Job’, Courtenay’s from ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. The effect is twofold: to reinforce the sense of ‘King of Thieves’ as a more-or-less contemporarily-set film hopelessly stuck in the past, and to make you wish you’d stayed at home and watched ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ instead.



*An end-credits title card announces that ‘Basil’ is still at large, however Ian Seed was arrested in March on suspicion of, well, basically being Basil and his trial has been postponed until next year to “allow the defence more time to construct their case because of the problems that may arise from the film’s release” (The Telegraph, 03.09.18).

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Blogged off

You've probably noticed that I haven't posted a review here in nearly two months. This is because:

(a) I've been working on other things; and

(b) I haven't seen much cinema lately that's been worth a damn.

So I may as well make official what y'll have probably guessed anyway: I'm taking a leave of absence from The Agitation of the Mind for a while. I don't know how long. I might do 13 For Halloween this year. I'll almost certainly reopen the blog's doors for the Winter of Discontent, if only because I've got a couple of reviews written for WoD already.

Apart from that, it's a case of I'm just going elsewhere and I may be some time ...

Friday, March 30, 2018

Hot Girls Wanted


When Hegel observed that the past repeats itself, Karl Marx added the famous caveat “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. To subject oneself to the hour twenty minutes of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, produced by singer and actress Rashida Jones, is to witness tragedy and farce awkwardly intertwined, both of them trying to pretend they’re enjoying it, while keeping one eye locked on their Instagram feeds and desperately hoping for another dozen likes.

Sticking with the Karl Marx theme for another paragraph, he and Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary political manifesto started with the words “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. Likewise, a spectre is haunting ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ – several spectres, in fact. Actually a whole fucking graveyard full of them. Shiver at the Ghost of Abject Narcissistic Stupidity! Gasp at the Ghost of Obsessive Social Media Inanity! Try not to piss your pants at the Ghost of Monumental Self-Delusion! (That’s piss your pants laughing, by the way, not piss your pants because it’s scary.)

There is, however, one spectre missing from the soul-crushingly interminable 80 minutes of this flick – and that’s the very spectre Bauer, Gradus, Jones and writer Brittany Huckaby went ghosthunting for in the first place.

The project started out as an investigation into male campus attitudes towards, and consumption of, online pornography (because God bless the internet that the youth of today no longer have to scrutinise a video store carpet while scarlet patches spread across their cheeks as they hand over to the matronly clerk an empty VHS case with a cover image of Nina Hartley about to steer some girl-next-door type down the rue de Sapphos), only to realise that the aforementioned girl-next-door types accounted for the majority of these thick-necked jocks’ viewing preferences: a hand-shandy subgenre known as “amateur porn”.

Thus it was that Bauer and Gradus and Jones and Huckaby, old Uncle Tom Netflix and all, went haring off in pursuit of these (mostly) teenage adult entertainment ingénues. The resulting documentary merited (that’s “merited” as in “was inexplicably on the receiving end of”) some festival buzz, even though early audiences felt that it lacked focus. Viewers and filmmakers batted their opinions around on Twitter while the auteur theory crawled into a hole and died. Re-edits occurred.

I’ve not had the opportunity to view the original cut, so I can’t say how it differs from the version now floating around near the scuzzy plughole of Netflix, but I can only assume that if the cut I watched was the one with all the focus and clarity, its erstwhile incarnation must have been headfuck incoherent on the level of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky going on a two-week bender during which they summoned the ghosts of Aleister Crowley and Jim Morrison via a ouija board whose letters were in Croatian and whose numbers roughly correlated with the Mayan calendar.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a clusterfuck on pretty much every level, but the essence of its clusterfuckery is Bauer and Gradus’ inability to find a tone, a context – hell, even a fucking point – to their film. At base level, you could précis it as the failure to bridge its Presbyterian disapproval at the depravity its subjects throw themselves into with its you-go-girl insistence on defending to the death (or at least a flesh wound) their right to do it in the name of empowerment, feminism, Belle Knox or the flying spaghetti monster.

Belle Knox, the so-called “Duke University porn star” (a weird conflation of alma mater and something-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-alma-mater that must make me the Bluecoat Sixth Form College sarcastic motherfucker), haunts the periphery of this film; and, given her soundbite-friendly eloquence and its-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it pseudo-feminist narrative, you get the impression that she’s the person Bauer and Gradus would rather be making a film about. Sadly, though, they have to satisfy themselves with a short clip from Knox’s toe-curling interview with professional British skeaze-meister Piers Morgan and an even shorter clip (mercifully) from one of her “facial abuse” videos.

Bauer and Gradus also have to make do, in terms of interview subjects, with Tressa (porn name: Stella May*), Rachel (porn name: Ava Taylor), Michelle (porn name: Brooklyn Daniels**), Karly (porn name: Lucy Tyler) and Jade (Ava Kelly). Their ages range from 18 to 25, though Jade at 25 is edging out of the girl-next-door market and forced to do more “specialist” videos. Bauer and Gradus capture her response at being asked to dress appropriate for a “ghetto” shoot. She cannot believe, she avers, that “there are guys who go to a pawn shop and they’re like ‘I wanna fuck that girl’,” and having delivered this value judgement against some poor shmuck reduced by circumstances to hocking his worldly goods for far less than they’re worth, she toddles off to the same kind of degrading experience Knox put herself through – she’s verbally abused, spat on, slapped around and much much worse – all for the same devalued handful of greenbacks.

The startling coda to this scene is her rationalisation that essentially being raped on camera means that guys who get their jollies from this kind of thing will sate themselves watching it happen to her rather than “doing it to a real girl”. Jade’s dissociation of herself from any recognisable set of values is the film’s emotional nadir and flies in the face of the my-choice-my-empowerment spin Bauer and Gradus desperately try to hammer home elsewhere. It does, however, provide an interesting point of contrast to Karly, who reads intellectually stimulating books on her days off and has created “Lucy Tyler” not as a pseudonym but an alter-ego: she subtly changes her appearance and behaves differently in order to become Lucy, and shrugs off the character after the shoot is over. Bauer and Gradus were handed a pint-sized nucleus of potential in Karly, and a version of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ that focused on her methodology for surviving the industry and retaining her self-identity could have been fascinating, particularly in counterpoint to Jade’s horrifying naivety.

But no: the filmmakers went with Tressa and Rachel as their primary focus. Granted, there were avenues that could have been explored with both of them. Rachel is introduced during her first few days in the business, blinged up and not exactly rocking a beanie hat, chuffing on a cigarillo and attempting to freestyle. This is the affront to linguistics that she comes up with:

Yeah, you’re a porn star
And I’m a fucking shooting star, bitch
And now we’re going to LA
And we’re gonna sip Bombay
Yeah, and I’m smokin’ hella blunt
Yeah, and I got hella cunt, yeah

(She’s white, by the way.) Now contrast this muppet babies version of hardcore with her interview following her first shoot: “Ugh, I got macked on by some creeper,” a statement delivered with all the wide-eyed incredulity of someone who honest-to-God thought that a life in adult features would require little more than some naked orgiastic motion-capture writhing and all the nasty, squelchy, gooey stuff would be added in later by CGI. Bauer and Gradus try this trick more than once, banging the drum re: the horrible reality of pornographic features, then undercutting themselves by citing research – specifically carried out for the film – that identifies extreme and violent porn (such as the “facial abuse” subgenre Belle Knox and Jade were victims of) as being prominently advertised on porn sites.

Ultimately, none of the interview subjects in ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ present as being in the dark about what awaits them (although they bullshit each other to an almost cruel degree as to how easy the lifestyle is: a frequently peddled myth is that “the guys treat you like princesses”), which doesn’t leave Bauer and Gradus with a lot of room to pattern a victim narrative (they do their best, though). Whenever the issues of complicity or responsibility rear their heads, the filmmakers hastily swerve in the direction of why-do-these-poor-girls-do-this, and in needing to grasp onto this aspect of the story they inadvertently make Tressa the main focus of the documentary.

So what does Tressa need to get away from so desperately? Um, a comfortable suburban home, a mother who’s proud of her academic and cheerleading achievements and a father who enjoys spending time with her, it would seem. Sure, her ma’s a bit of a couch potato, and her dad likes firing off shotguns, but neither of them come across as the kind of controlling, suffocating or domineering types that one’s only option is a flight to Miami and so much sex with hatchet-faced tattooed douchebags that one develops a vaginal cyst.

The clue to Tressa’s psychological make-up has more to do with an obsession with image. I was about to say self-image, but that makes it seem too profound. Let’s just use the word “selfie” instead. Tressa comes across as an entity virtually inseperable from her cellphone or laptop. Every phone call she makes is a face-time pout opportunity. She goes on a date to the zoo with her limp dick loser boyfriend (“you’re not a prostitute to me” he says at one point, dejection spray-painted across his hangdog face) and tunes out of his conversation, so focused is she on filming herself. And again, an avenue presents itself to Bauer and Gradus – the fledgling porn star as a product of the social media age – but they lack either the interest or the ability to pursue it.

If Jade’s humiliation at the “facial abuse” shoot is the tragedy part of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, Tressa’s return to the parental abode – limp dick boyfriend in tow – is the farce. In a volte-face that plays out like the worst Hollywood melodrama, the combination of her parents’ disappointment and her boyfriend’s general deficiency of manliness lead her to a disavowal of her short-lived porn star past. “I only made twenty-five thousand dollars in four months,” she opines, “and when I came home I had two thousand left in the bank.” That she applies “only” to the twenty-five thousand not the two says something I could probably write another few paragraphs about, but the hour is late, the review already overlong, and further speculation on Tressa and co. frankly not worth the effort.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a documentary whose title all but instructs you to ready your palm for some onanistic activity, only to compel you to smack it repeatedly against your forehead instead.



*Perhaps the only example of the porn name being classier than the actual name.

**Decided on after she’s encouraged to “think of a place you like”, which is like a male London porn star alighting on the pseudonym Brixton Hardd.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: wrap-up

When StudioCanal acquired Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ – even though they were already distributing higher-budgeted rival film ‘The Mercy’ – there was speculation that they were protecting their interests as regards the latter and that Rumley’s film would effectively be quashed. StudioCanal nonetheless announced that ‘Crowhurst would open “four to six weeks” after ‘The Mercy’.

Well, those four to six weeks have disappeared over the horizon and although ‘Crowhurst’ has received a couple of (complimentary) reviews in the broadsheets, there’s been neither sight nor sound of it at any cinema anywhere near your humble blogger. So my objective of wrapping up Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind with an in-depth review of Rumley’s take on the enigmatic story of Donald Crowhurst is basically bollocksed.

Nor did I manage to track down a copy of Christian de Chalonge’s ‘Les quarantièmes rugissants’ (‘The Roaring Forties’) or the BBC documentary ‘Donald Crowhurst: Sponsored for Heroism’. I found Nikita Orlov’s ‘Gonka Veka’ (‘The Race of the Century’) online, but in a print that wasn’t subtitled, and while it was a solidly made piece of work that seemed to focus on the sponsorship/business aspect of the story to make an anti-capitalist point, I wasn’t confident in attempting a review.

Whilst kicking my heels waiting for ‘Crowhurst’ to open – and delaying a number of other reviews in the process – I read Peter Nichols’ ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, which tells the story of all of the Golden Globe participants and delivers its meticulously researched narrative with all the verve and immediacy of a thriller; and Donald Finkel’s book-length narrative poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’, in which Finkel imaginatively sympathises with Crowhurst, taking prompts from his final log book and from Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ (Crowhurst’s less-than-light-reading during the voyage) and wrestles them into poetry.

I have yet to source copies of Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Chris Eakin’s ‘A Race Too Far’ (acclaimed by ‘The Mercy’ star Colin Firth), but I can highly recommend Nichols and Finkel: their approaches are vastly different but their contributions to the Crowhurst canon are invaluable.

Friday, March 09, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: The Mercy


So: over a month after I saw ‘The Mercy’ at a vastly under-attended screening at Nottingham’s Cineworld multiplex – during which I have watched several other Crowhurst features, ploughed through two-thirds of Peter Nichols’s book ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, added Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Bernard Moitessier’s ‘The Long Way’ to my “must read” list, and cursed StudioCanal for not getting Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ into theatres four to six weeks after ‘The Mercy’ as they promised – I find myself sitting down to write about ‘The Mercy’ and feeling like I’m about to be a bit of a heel.

I had sod all knowledge of Donald Crowhurst, Bernard Moitessier and the 1968 Golden Globe race before I saw ‘The Mercy’. I went to see it because of its stars – Colin Firth and the always watchable Rachel Weisz – and because it looked like something reasonably interesting amidst an otherwise lacklustre choice of cinema-going options. What ‘The Mercy’ did was to sink a hook in my imagination and pull the line attached to it taut as a piano wire. It made me want to know more. Not just about Crowhurst but the other contestants. Once payday has rolled around again and I can order a copy of Moitessier’s account and the Tomalin/Hall book, my next acquisitions will be Donald Finkel’s book-length poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’ and Robin Knox-Johnston’s memoir ‘A World of My Own’.

This from someone who never had any real interest in ocean voyages or yachtsmanship. And it’s thanks to ‘The Mercy’ that I owe this explosion of new-found fascination.

And yet – I was aware of this to a certain degree as I watched the film, and it’s been thrown into sharper relief by my viewing, reading and researches since – ‘The Mercy’ isn’t that great a movie. It’s decent, don’t get me wrong – nicely shot, good production values, a commendably taut hour forty minute running time, and Firth’s most committed performance in ages – but it falls short of greatness.

It falls short because, in some places, it elides fascinating details of Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron’s voyage that would have added to the drama; and in others it sanitises them. Example of the former: ‘The Mercy’ insinuates that the Teignmouth Electron was delivered to Crowhurst at the very eleventh hour, allowing him to set out on the very day of the deadline – 31 October 1968 – when in fact the vessel was launched in late September with the intention that Crowhurst would sail it from Brundall to Teignmouth (the Electron had been named after the harbour town as part of Rodney Hallworth’s publicity drive), a voyage that should have been a three day hop for any competent sailor but took Crowhurst a fortnight. Much, too, is made in the film of Crowhurst’s self-designed safety devices, particularly the “buoyancy bag”, and a genuinely vertiginous scene has a petrified Crowhurst (Firth) climbing a wobbling mast in order to effect a repair only to fail in his endeavours. In actuality, none of the safety features had been completed and/or installed before the Electron set sail, and it strikes me that for the film to have reflected this would have ramped up the tension from the get-go.

Examples of director James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns’s sanitisation are more prolific and more troubling. One needs only to consult two or three accounts of the Crowhurst story to identify Stanley Best and Rodney Hallworth as the puppet-masters who manoeuvred Crowhurst into his damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t dilemma. Yet Marsh and Burns almost seem to take pains to paint Best as a kindly old cove (he’s played by Ken Stott, who can do ruthless as well as any character actor, so we have to assume that the twinkly characterisation he delivers instead was specifically requested) who does what he does with the greatest of reluctance. Likewise, Hallworth (David Thewlis) comes across as a cheeky chappie who gratuitously embellishes Crowhurst’s claims because, hey folks, that’s what fast-talking 1960s newspaper were like, innit? Thewlis had already turned in a far more nuanced portrayal of a journalist in ‘The Fifth Estate’ so there’s no reason to doubt that, had Burns written Hallworth as such and Marsh requested it, Thewlis would have embodied the character and projected his motives in suitably eviscerating style.

Similarly, Crowhurst’s descent into madness is skirted around rather than providing the dramatic raw red meat of the film’s final act. Neither Marsh nor Burns seem to be up to the task of depicting their protagonist’s fragmenting mental state. A visual attempt to render Crowhurst’s disorientation against a seascape that renders him insignificant isn’t well enough thought-out to be impactful, and a sequence with a non-functional radio-telephone, which seems to have been shoehorned in purely to make mention of Crowhurst’s “cosmic being theory” (but without actually explicating it), is so predictable in its visual punchline to be crass.

Put simply, ‘The Mercy’ doesn’t go deep or dark enough. Its last half hour needs to be the kind of claustrophobic and immersive headfuck that Nic Roeg, Donald Cammell, David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky would have rubbed their hands together and dived right into. But I guess that headfuck-inability is what you get when you engage the director of ‘The Theory of Everything’ instead of a visionary auteur.

Mercifully (bad pun: no apologies), the film does get some things right. It gives Firth one of the best roles he’s had and – despite being at least 15 years too old to play Crowhurst – he rises above the limitations of the script and direction. As does Rachel Weisz as Clare Crowhurst, whose final act j’accuse against the press is infinitely more powerful for the reserve and restraint she forces on herself as she delivers it. There are also a cluster of scenes which simply document Crowhurst, alone at sea, coming painfully to terms with how ill-prepared he is, how unsuited to purpose the Electron is, and how miserably lonely the undertaking. I often complain that contemporary films would benefit from having their running times reduced by 15 or 20 minutes, but in this case and extra quarter of an hour or so of Crowhurst battling to keep his trimaran afloat, battling his own lack of expertise and battling the crippling external forces by which he is unable to either turn back or go on, would have improved ‘The Mercy’ no end. That, and the balls to look right into the abyss the way Crowhurst must have done during those terrible final days.

Friday, March 02, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: Deep Water


Donald Crowhurst set sail in the Teignmouth Electron in late 1968. By 1970 there had been a book that is still in print and a BBC documentary. From hereon in, there would be some form of representation as regards Crowhurst’s Golden Globe dichotomy – be it a documentary account or a fictive ruminations – across each of the six decades that separate the original Sunday Times sponsored race from the two most recent biopics: James Marsh’s ‘The Mercy’ and Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’.

But it wasn’t till 2006 – nearly forty years afterwards – that film-makers Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell came as close as anyone has thus far to making the definitive film on Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe race. ‘Deep Water’ is a clear-sighted and narratively lucid distillation of all the key elements. It establishes Crowhurst’s background and throws into sharp relief how lacking he was in seafaring experience compared to the other entrants. It demonstrates a psychologically acute yet sympathetic understanding of his personality – by turns ebullient, confident, persuasive, driven and, underlying all of it, self-delusional in the way that those beset by failure (or by the nagging conviction that they have not achieved all of which they are capable) can delude themselves that success or fame or whatever their motivator is, is just round the corner – and it correctly identifies him as a tragic victim rather than a villain or, worse, simply a cheat.

As an example of feature-length documentary filmmaking, it gets everything right. The balance of ‘talking heads’, voiceover and archive footage is spot on, and the transitions organic and effective. Tilda Swinton’s narration is perfectly pitched, her diction precise, and there is no slipping into melodrama. Osmond and Rothwell plot out the timeline, the course by which the circumnavigation was effected (if only by one contestant and sort-of-and-then-some by another), and the stages of the voyage as applicable to the various entrants.

Better still, it doesn’t just focus on Crowhurst, but tells his story through the greater context of the race itself. Through the yachtman’s own interview contributions, ‘Deep Water’ celebrates Robin Knox-Johnston’s success (he comes across as immensely likeable) and his generosity – he donated his winnings to the financially beleaguered Clare Crowhurst and her children. The filmmakers also evince a fascination with Bernard Moitessier, a man who had already undertaken – and published books about – various nautical adventures. The calm, steady professionalism of Knox-Johnston and the round-the-world-yacht-trip-as-zen-experience of Moitessier are the counterpoints by which Crowhurst’s story can be told that much more empathetically.

(It’s understandable that other contestants get short shrift – ‘Deep Water’ is essentially telling one story, not nine, and Knox-Johnston and Moitessier occupy a place in its narrative for specific reasons – but it’s to be regretted that, say, Bill King’s near-death experience when his boat capsized or Nigel Tetley’s dramatic eleventh hour disaster don’t merit more screen time.)

One gets the impression that Moitessier – represented by readings from his books and some splendidly philosophical interview footage with his wife Françoise – would have been the focus of ‘Deep Water’ had Crowhurst’s bizarre, enigmatic and wholly tragic story not stolen everyone’s thunder by exerting its a grip on the popular imagination that shows no signs of loosening. Moitessier, in a boat constructed from boilerplate that he named Joshua (after Joshua Slocum, author of the seminal ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’), was odds-on to win both the Golden Globe and the prize for fastest time. Had he completed the circumnavigation according to the rules of the race (and there is nothing to suggest he wouldn’t have pulled off this double whammy), Knox-Johnston would have been a footnote in yachting lore and it is possible that even Crowhurst’s infamy would have been overshadowed.

But Moistessier was a very different individual to the others. While Knox-Johnston, King, Tetley and Chay Blyth certainly benefited from the disciplined mindset of naval service and an intimacy with hardship and physical endurance, it is clear from even the most cursory background reading on the Golden Globe and one or two filmed documentaries that they were still plagued by loneliness and heartsore at being separate from their families. Moitessier, however, was liberated by these things. At one point in his voyage, with Joshua performing well but Moitessier convinced it could go faster – could veritably fly across the oceans – he jettisoned everything that he felt was superfluous – and it’s not hard to look beyond the act as a coaxing from the vessel of more speed and see it as almost purely philosophical.

Bernard Moitessier found, in the element forces of the sea and the absolutely absence of (a) his fellow men and (b) everything that wasn’t utterly necessary, a state that most zen masters would weep at never having quite achieved. And having found this state of being, Moistessier knew that he couldn’t coast into the harbour he’d set sail from to the glare of a thousand flashbulbs, the rifle-like barrels of camera lenses, the endless intrusive questions from the press, the mobbings, the publicity, the screaming hordes. So he dropped out of the race in the most spectacular and iconic way imaginable: he omitted to cross the finish line and sailed round the world all over again.

To reiterate: Knox-Johnston’s typically British victory (a literal case of slow and steady wins the race) makes for a wonderful comparison with Moitessier’s insouciance of throwing the race by coming within a whisker of winning it – think Smith in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ only in a yacht and without even the ulterior motive of wanting to cock a snook at the governor – but ultimately ‘Deep Water’ has Donald Crowhurst as its protagonist, and fascinating as its digressions are, everything ultimately comes back to his fateful decision, the role of chance in robbing him of the tail-end-Charlie placement that might just have allowed his gamble to pay off, and the terrible effect on his mental health.

‘Deep Water’ doesn’t call it in terms of whether his disappearance was a purposeful act of suicide or as a result of being swept overboard while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Quotes from his final log book entries – a sort of de-manufacture and reconstruction of elements of Einstein’s ‘Relativity, the Special and General Theory’ (Crowhurst had taken the tome with him for, ahem, light reading) – heavily suggest the latter, but ultimately no-one will ever know, and kudos to Osmond and Rothwell for discharging their responsibilities as documentarists and refusing to fall into the trap of speculation.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst


To the best of my knowledge, the first documentary about the Golden Globe debacle was Colin Thomas’s ‘Donald Crowhurst – Sponsored for Heroism’ which aired on British TV in 1970 and is described in this excellent New Statesman article as “dour, scathing”. Having been unable to track down a copy or find it online, I found myself turning instead to ‘The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst’, an Arena documentary from 1994.

It’s a curious piece of work, this. The approach to the material is clinical to the point of detachment, with a voiceover delivered in the kind of vaguely condescending cut-glass English accent that suggests it was made the Fifties rather than the Nineties. With a running time just short of half an hour, it doesn’t allow itself the necessary breathing space to consider the subject matter in the depth it requires.

Particularly galling is the lack of attention paid to the other entrants in the race, and the whistlestop pace the documentary assumes in charting Crowhurst’s premeditated decision to post fictional updates of his journey, to the point at which madness overcomes him and he struggles with cosmic considerations of time, the universe and religion. ‘Two Voyages’ fails to communicate the sheer amount of time he spent in his own company, or to plumb the psychological fall-out of a man having to live with the impossible decision he made – a man alone, struggling to keep afloat an ill-prepared vessel, missing his family, terrified at the thought of financial ruination and reputational humiliation – for so long without being able to share the burden or make confession.

This aspect is especially frustrating since the documentary makes good use of Crowhurst’s own footage of the voyage. When he set out, the BBC gave him some sponsorship money, a cine-camera and a tape recorder, the intent being that he would keep an audio-visual log correlative to the written one and return with material that could be shaped into a documentary. The BBC probably had an entirely different conception of the documentary at that point in time!

‘Two Voyages’ is also effective in establishing the inherent contradictions between Crowhurst’s bright and breezy tape recordings and cine-cam footage, and the mental turmoil he was experiencing even as he continued to play the part that was expected of him. Had the documentary taken this schism as its starting point and really squared up to Crowhurst’s mental breakdown, it might have emerged as the definitive entry in the Crowhurst cycle. As it is, it’s the first piece of work that gives us Donald Crowhurst as a regular guy – right down to some audio of him blowing a melancholy tune on the mouth organ – with whom it’s all too easy to sympathise. But it only establishes that one aspect of Crowhurst, and does not (or cannot) get a fix on the Donald Crowhurst of those last weeks.

For a documentary that plays up duality in its very title, its inability to reconcile Crowhurst’s (perhaps self-created) public persona with the person he became as time wore on and his options ran out is bitterly ironic.